How 1994 Became the Year of Jim Carrey

Matt Fowler

Allllrighty then.

As we reach the 30-year anniversary of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective on February 4, it’s the perfect time to look back at what an incredible, career-launching year Jim Carrey had back in 1994. Many famous actors have had winning streaks – certain “eras” when they just get striking gold and hitting oil – but very few had the ridiculously huge single year Carrey had three decades ago when he went from a relative unknown for many moviegoers, with a modicum of TV fame, to one of the highest paid stars in Hollywood as three wildly successful movies dropped within months of each other.

Before both so-called “Prestige TV” arrived and streaming was a thing, it was much more notable when a TV star crossed over to movies. And a much bigger deal when that move was successful, as the star would never return to TV (with rare exceptions). They were part of the movie world now and there was no going back. Prior to 1994, Carrey, a stand up comic, had tried his hand at movies in the 80s (Once Bitten, Earth Girls Are Easy) but nothing propelled him forward.

He hasn’t had much success in TV either initially (failed SNL auditions, forgotten sitcom The Duck Factory) until he became a cast member of groundbreaking sketch comedy series In Living Color in 1990. And it’s there we’ll start, since In Living Color was still a big part of Carrey’s life in 1994 when, out of nowhere, lightning seemed to strike three times and he was on his way to becoming the Twenty Million Dollar Man.

In Living Color‘s Final Episodes

January – May 1994

For almost half of 1994, Carrey was still a main cast member on In Living Color, a pioneering primarily African-American-centered sketch comedy show created by Keenen Ivory Wayans. The series had a big cultural zeitgeist moment in the early ‘90s but by its fifth and final season, tensions between Fox and Wayans over censorship had caused the creator to part ways with and Carrey was one of only four cast members from the large ensemble who’d been there from the start.

Standout performer Damon Wayans had already left to pursue movies, but Carrey remained, having gained increasing popularity and acclaim for both his recurring characters, like Fire Marshall Bill, and his fearlessness as a performer. An argument could be made that Carrey, though only on the precipice of movie stardom, was the spotlight cast member of In Living Color by this point. With buzz growing around him, he’d filmed two of his breakout 1994 movies in 1993 while still working on the sketch show, perhaps simultaneously trying his hand at the big screen again while also seeing the writing on the wall for his TV home.

Nevertheless, it was In Living Color that introduced America to Carrey’s wild, rubber-faced antics and the main reason he was cast as the lead in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, which he was allowed to rewrite and improvise on, after other comedians, including In Living Color castmate David Alan Grier, turned down the role. When he made Ace, it was a big gamble to see if Carrey could truly hold his own as the focus of a feature film, but it turned out he was more than ready.

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective

February 4, 1994

There’s definitely a world out there, in the multiverse, where Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was received differently, and didn’t earn over $100 million off a $15 million dollar budget.

It’s a rambunctiously weird film that parlays many of Carrey’s In Living Color shenanigans, voices, mannerisms, and bits into one movie, and one character. But it was an instant hit. And, along with Wayne’s World and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, it was one of the most quoted movies in the ‘90s (not that the other films Carrey released in 1994 haven’t been quoted plenty too).

Once Ace Ventura was released, Jim Carrey was a star on a much bigger level than he had been by being part of the large cast of In Living Color. Carrey wasn’t a top earner just yet, but based on the surprise financial returns for Ace Ventura, he was able to negotiate a huge $7 million dollar payday for the next movie he’d make after Ace opened, Dumb and Dumber, which would amazingly both be filmed and released before 1994 ended.

Ace Ventura would also start up a creative partnership between Carrey and director Tom Shadyac, continuing on 1997’s Liar Liar and 2003’s Bruce Almighty.

Landing the Role of The Riddler

June 1994

Carrey was now a household name and his manic, wiry Pet Detective performance had people in the industry taking note. Ace Ventura was such a left field smash that Carrey was immediately considered, and increasingly fan cast, for the coveted role of The Riddler for the upcoming Batman Forever. And indeed, he would actually land the role in June that year, after Robin Williams, a far bigger and more established star by this point, with many hits under his belt, had declined.

Yes, Carrey was just coming off the one movie when he was signed to play Riddler, given his second 1994 flick wouldn’t even open until July, but the newfound confidence in him was enough for Warner Bros. to entrust him with a key role in a franchise as important as Batman. Shooting for Batman Forever — which would open to its own massive success in June 1995 — began in September so Carrey would go directly from shooting Dumb and Dumber to wearing the question-marked suits and tights of Edward Nygma.

The Mask

July 29, 1994

Capitalizing on CarreyMania, New Line luckily had a Carrey movie already set to unleash in July, just a few months after the Ace Ventura phenomenon. Comic book adaptation The Mask was suddenly now a much bigger deal, and got a lot more attention in the lead up to its release than it likely would have otherwise because its star was now a Star with a capital “S.” The Mask, like Ace Ventura, was a movie Carrey landed specifically because of his performance on In Living Color. Bigger names had passed on the project but Carrey’s comedy chops were undeniable.

The Mask would become the comedian’s towering blockbuster of his big three releases in 1994, bringing in $350 million off a $20 million dollar budget. It helped that it didn’t only have Carrey going for it but that this was a lighter, less-violent and more accessible take on The Mask comic book, which had more of a horror/revenge bent. As a wacky hybrid special effects-laden comedic action movie (with a splash of rom-com), the film version turned out to be the perfect vehicle for Carrey. It was one where he could be both play a likable everyman, Stanley Ipkiss, and an outlandish, cartoon-y avenger, as Stanley transforms into a staggeringly silly hero after donning an ancient mask. Carrey would prove that his hilarity could shine despite heavy makeup while audiences were also introduced to Cameron Diaz, in her first ever on-screen acting role as Stanley’s eventual love interest, Tina.

Out of Carrey’s big 1994 films, The Mask is the only one to never get a Carrey-starring sequel, despite it having the biggest box office – making it feel even more special, as hit movies go. Sure, New Line wanted him to make a sequel, and Carrey would have been paid $10 million for it, which would have been his biggest payday at the time, but he ultimately passed on the film – and the less said about the Carrey-less Son of The Mask, the better.

Dumb and Dumber

December 16, 1994

Jim Carrey was so white hot in 1994 that Dumb and Dumber, the Farrelly brothers’ first feature film, was rushed in both production and post-production to make a December release date. Think about that. It’s crazy that a movie like this would get the greenlight in the spring and then be in theaters by Christmas, and without Carrey, there’s almost no way this would have opened until 1995. But New Line wanted another Jim Carrey movie in theaters during the holidays, and they decided on all this even before their other Carrey film, The Mask, had even opened. They just had good Jim vibes.

And they were right, because it was another huge hit, raking in $250 million off a $20 million dollar budget. Lauren Holly, who’d turned down the role that went to Courteney Cox in Ace Ventura, had a change of heart when it came to this Carrey-led vehicle, playing the bombshell object of moron Lloyd’s affection, Mary Swanson.

Carrey would have two more huge movies the following year, Batman Forever and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, and many more big hits in the years to come, but nothing can truly rival his 1994 in terms of how much was released, how well it was all received, and how Carrey’s status skyrocketed so fast. And it was a year that not only changed cinematic comedy but also movie star salaries, as Carrey reportedly made just $350,000 for Ace Ventura and $540,000 for The Mask before that Dumb-sized salary increase took shape. In just a matter of months, Carrey’s stock went through the roof and he became one of the top comedic actors in Hollywood history (though he’d also begin dabbling in drama by the end of the decade).

He was well on his way to becoming the first-ever actor to get a $20 million dollar payday, up front, upending the industry forever – which would happen the following year when he was paid that staggering amount for The Cable Guy, which would be released in 1996. But that aforementioned $7 million he got for gross-out comedy Dumb and Dumber (compared to co-star Jeff Daniels’ 50k) was nothing to booger-sneeze at.

Matt Fowler